We all celebrate our dates of birth, yet none of us have the slightest memory of the day – who we saw; what was said; what funny or not-so-funny jokes were made. Very few moments in life are definitive, which is why the ones we are conscious enough to understand carry even greater significance.
September 11, 2001 was one of those indelible moments.
In one fell day, Mr. bin Laden single-handedly reshaped how we view our world; forcing himself into our consciousness. Time magazine, responsibly or irresponsibly, would go on to name him “Person of the Year” for 2001.
News of the death of the master terrorist, after nearly a decade on the run, feels somewhat surreal. After all, we seemed to have collectively resigned ourselves to his Houdini-like elusiveness. Just as in 2001, when Osama brought his name into the universal lexicon, we are now bound to remember the moment we were apprised of his death.
And for this, Mr. Obama, the intelligence community, and the nation’s military deserve a resounding ovation and profound commendation for bringing to bear much-needed justice.
But what is now quite as stunning as the capture of Mr. bin Laden is Mr. Obama’s decision to give the deceased terrorist some sort of state protection. The President’s decision to not release any photograph of the dead terrorist is inadequate no matter how much justification goes into the reasoning.
According to the White House, the risk of reprisal attacks and use of such photos as recruitment paraphernalia by followers of Mr. bin Laden wholly outweighs all gains.
Mr. President, I couldn’t disagree more.
True, we do bear certain risks with the release of any photos, but unfortunately, no risks we’ve not always borne; especially since the aftermath of 9/11.
To this end, for nearly a decade, Mr. bin Laden and his Terror Inc. (al Qaeda) have dictated the narrative of our lives. They have dictated the manner in which we travel, how much of our budget goes to national defense, immigration policies, what basic liberties such as individual privacy is forfeited in the name of anti-terrorism, and many others. Osama decreed what the rules of the game will be, and hitherto, we have been forced to play by them.
It is very worth noting that the 19 hijackers who attacked America and willingly died, at the behest of Mr. bin Laden, needed no gory photos for their recruitment. The engine of Islamic fundamentalists is not cloaked in some sentimental affair that a gory picture provides (as Mr. Obama’s rationale might suggest); rather, it is deeply rooted in an unrepentant and unforgiving ideology. Photo or no photo, Jihad will persist.
Inasmuch as America continues to be the world’s sole super-power, continues to rightly champion fundamental human values to which some will forever remain averse, and is perceived as siding with Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – I’m afraid no other incentive is needed for those who hate America to plot against her.
When, in 2006, unflattering pictures of American soldiers abusing Muslim prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq broke out, I shuddered at how awesome a terrorist recruiter would find the pictures. No other material could be as poisonous or incendiary to national security as pictures of Americans unapologetically humiliating naked Arab Muslims. Fortunately, the heavens did not come crashing down after such unjustifiable acts by a select few: America did not experience a rash of one terrorist attack after another.
But, here we are today, with a justified picture of a criminal the world needs to see at his lowest and we chicken to release it.
Symbols are central to how we live – they are the reasons why the son of a community doctor aspires to be like his noble parent and the son of a feared mobster, as well, aspires to be like his larger-than-life father. Just as they are crucial to jihadists who seek to upend our lives and send us spiraling into the Stone Age, they are requisite to those who seek to defend fundamental human dignity and liberties.
Osama bin Laden was the symbol of the global jihad we now face from Islamic extremists. No matter how gruesome the pictures, other extremists need to quantify in real terms what end awaits them if they persist in their quest. That a picture is worth a thousand words has never been truer.
Until now, Mr. bin Laden decimated the most sophisticated and advanced manhunt in world history. He made a mockery of what the United States represent – a beacon of hope, justice, and equality for all. We live in a visual world, and it is important for the world to see which symbol ultimately won in this fight of good v. evil. If the United States seeks to recruit good doers around the globe, it must show in stark terms the triumph of good over evil.
Consequently, by granting Mr. bin Laden state protection, Mr. Obama unintentionally immortalizes the legend of the man. He shrouds him in a cloth of mystery which will only animate his ignorant followers. Humiliation in the public square is what befits a criminal like Mr. bin Laden – it is the very reason why punishment for all to see serves as a strong deterrent in our world.
And lastly, if the man who put together the intelligence that led to the capture of Mr. bin Laden believes the world should be privy to his dead image, I am inclined to agree with him. After all, as CIA Director, Leon Panetta, who in a matter of months will assume the position of Secretary of Defense, is in a unique position to perfectly understand what national security consequences such a release brings.
If Mr. Obama is naïve enough to believe these photos will not eventually leak in the future, then he must thank his stars he’s not in the bookmaking business. Right now, Mr. Obama has a chance to control the release of these photos, and in a sense mold the narrative that accompanies their release. It is a chance he must not let slip him by.